French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have succumbed to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s charm offensive during a three-day visit to China last week.
As during his last visit in 2019, Macron publicly ignored the deteriorating human rights situation in China under Xi. China’s “president for life” has continued to tighten his dictatorial grip on the country, further stifling dissent with relentless repression coupled with pervasive surveillance. The government has been systematically dismantling fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, pursuing widespread oppression of Tibetans, and committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.
Under Xi, the Chinese government has also extended its surveillance and intimidation to silence critics abroad, including in France. It has frequently used its power to weaken the international human rights protection system and shield itself and other grossly repressive governments from international scrutiny.
Macron raised none of these issues publicly during his visit, nor suggested that he even raised them privately. The Ukraine war was instead his top priority; he said he could count on Xi to “bring Russia to its senses,” despite Xi’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent reaffirmation of their “no-limits friendship.” Macron’s other apparent priority was the resumption of France-China business after the Covid-19 crisis. A number of deals were reported, sending the signal that Beijing’s egregious abuses – including credible reports that Uyghurs are subjected to forced labor – do not affect France’s willingness to do business with China.
The return to “business as usual” signals that Macron has not learned a lesson from Ukraine that ignoring growing rights violations for short-term economic and geopolitical gains can have major consequences.
A few days before joining Macron in Beijing, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed out that the Chinese government was “becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.” Macron should have reflected this reality in his engagement with Xi.
Beijing is the big winner in all of this, and will only be emboldened by Macron’s uncritical treatment. Just days after Macron left China, two prominent human rights lawyers received harsh prison sentences on fabricated charges. For Beijing, it’s business as usual.
The French government is repeating the same mistake in China it made with Russia, whose atrocities in Ukraine are causing widespread suffering. Supporting human rights is not only the principled approach, it’s also in France’s – and everyone’s – best interests.